Folk Tales from the Sertão

A Review of Little Star of Bela Lua by Luana Monteiro


There's something about Latin American literature which lends itself to fabulism. Maybe it is the clash of old world and new world mores, the strongly religious ethos of both colliding, causing a sort of big bang, a release of pent up spirits, wraiths, djinns and the like wreaking havoc with ordinary lives. Central and South American novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Paolo Coelho, Julio Cortazar and others have promulgated the literary movement known as Magical Realism, an oeuvre where miracles are commonplace, mythic beings manifest most days, and people regularly transcend their mundane existence. It's a sub-genre in which superstition is prominently featured, and while consuming this particular literary ilk the reader realizes it may be prudent for the denizens between the covers to heed the wise caveat of Stevie Wonder: "superstition ain't the way".

Keeping with that auspicious Latin American tradition (writing in the style of magical realism) Luana Monteiro published her debut novella com stories entitled Little Star of Bela Lua in 2005. It has been re-released in 2012 as an e-book by Open Road Media. Monteiro, who currently lives in Wisconsin, writes vividly in this volume of the Sertão, or the backlands, an arid and desolate expanse of northeastern Brazil. It's an area that has been written of previously by the likes of Mario Vargas Llosa in The War of the End of the World and Euclides da Cunha in his masterpiece Os Sertões; both relate the history of the late nineteenth century uprising led by the messianic figure, Antonio Conselheiro. However, although one of Monteiro's characters, the exiled priest, Padre Miguel Inacio, packs Os Sertoes along with the Holy Bible among his very few necessities, she does not focus so much on local history as on the locals, their lives imbued with legend, of this volatile desert region.

The eponymous novella is comprised of four tales all related in some way. In the opening story, an aging couple make their nightly wish on the first star of evening. For forty years Otalia and Justino have been wishing for the Virgin to grant them a child, but instead, after the first rainfall in nine months, they are blessed with a fish. But not just your run of the mill catfish, this piscine specimen is special. It appears in the outhouse overflow, foul, "ugly", with a "sad smile", but as is soon discovered, miraculous: it has the power to grant wishes (here's where we encounter the "magic" in Magic Realism). Otalia is overjoyed, she names the scaly creature Saturnino for the god of prosperity, but like in most tales of miracles, wishes coming true (King's Pet Sematary, Grimm's The Fisherman and his Wife, Faust, etc..), there is a great debt due in the end.

In the second part, a talented "rhymester", that is, someone who competes at the "repente", or a sort of off-the-cuff songwriting competition, relates her own bittersweet legend. She is the Little Star of the title, Valquiria, (Portuguese for Valkyrie, the maidens of Norse lore who get to pick and choose who dies in battle), who nearly follows what's written in the stars until fate throws a wrench in the works. Her's is a destiny too strong to be messed with.

The last two sections of the novella are a bit slower in pace, more drawn out and as such more affecting. In the first, Padre Miguel Inacio Malpica da Gama takes the spotlight. After a scandalous rumors defame the young priest, the archbishop orders his exile to the Holy Church of the Sacred Wounds of the Blessed Jesus, a new construction in the Amazon rain forest. As his superior directs Padre Miguel - to aid the local patron, "pious Boca de Ouro" (Gold Mouth) and to baptize the local Indians- we get a hint of the padre's personal politics:
"At this point he stopped chewing and turned the entire force of his baleful glare on Padre Miguel Inácio. “Don’t think that I am unfamiliar with your politics, Padre, your ingenious opinions about the Church and the poor, your disaffection with our relationship to them. We are not Lutherans. I should not have to remind you that our primary duty is to their undying souls, and that a man with an empty stomach is always closer to God."
The padre's heroes include- besides Conselheiro, who fought to, among other things, prevent the republic from "Reestablishing slavery and returning dark-skinned people to their masters, so as to be able to identify the Catholics when the persecutions begins"- St. Francis of Asissi and the hunchback patron saint of the Sertão, Padim Cico. All seems fine at his new assignment until the padre begins hallucinating. He has a vision of a young native boy by the river, playing a haunting melody on the flute. From then on things worsen as the padre learns the secrets of Boca de Ouro, secrets as deep as the river running through the very settlement he  is charged with saving from what Miguel Inacio sees as the endless cycle of sin.

Which leads to the final tale of the novella called Ouroboros, a word which describes the symbol of the snake devouring its own tale, an emblem of wholeness, or more appropriately in this story, infinity. Uriel Augusto is the unfortunate protagonist who happens to be 126 years old, cursed by a fish named Saturnino, and wanting only to rest in peace. He visits the powerful seer Pascoal, his last hope, whom he has heard has enough "arcane knowledge" to aid him in this ultimate quest. As may be evident by now, Monteiro's writing is rife with arcane lyricism  and symbolism. She informs her craft with folklore and fable, yet calls it back to the sobriety of present day. Unlike her character Uriel Augusto, who seems doomed with immortality, Monteiro uses that timeless quality to her favor, achieving her own connotation of ouroboros: a wholeness.

Three remaining stories round out this collection, all slightly different in tone and atmosphere from the novella. Antonio de Juvita concerns a local city politician still living with his mother during the second world war who will do anything to repair his tarnished reputation, and become respected again among his would-be constituents. In the second story, Curados, A doctor accepts an odorous turkey as payment from one of his patients at the local clinic. Being one who must follow the Hippocratic oath, he is faced with the conflict of facing his wife's wrath versus preserving the innocent life of the foul fowl. And in the last, Whirling Dove, Chloe, a promiscuous young woman discovers her ultimate lover, Jesus Christ. Here Monteiro uses the device of story within story to elucidate her themes of regeneration.

Little Star of Bela Lua is one of those hidden jewels of a book. I can only hope Luana Monteiro writes more, perhaps a complete novel this time. She is a welcome addition to the Magical Realism breed.